The arrival of autumn ‘proper’ is marked by stark tokens of seasonal transition. One of the most stark and beautiful is that born by the Russian Vine, a familiar sight in urban environments. Often maligned for its roof tile lifting and gutter blocking habits, it nonetheless brings a seasonal flare of red to many walls and buildings.
Memory holds another sense of autumn , a smell that is, or rather was, as much a signature of October as the scent of wet leaf-fall or tang of morning mist. Growing up in Kidderminster, October was met annually with the heavy smell generated by the refining of sugar beet. A smell so distinctive that it can never be forgotten like that of coal smoke or fireworks. It is the smell of burnt caramel blended with that of roasting chestnuts, and rather like Russian Vine was loved or loathed in equal measure.
The first factory of the sugar industry was built at Cantley, Norfolk in 1912 with a further seventeen factories built around the UK during the following two decades (source:www.britishsugar.co.uk).
Each Autumn the sugar beet ‘campaign’ would begin with hundreds of employees working shifts, regardless of public holidays, to satisfy the demand for sugar. Each campaign would last until late winter as spring blossom and the smell of cut grass once again reclaimed the air. Tractors hauling trailer loads of sugar beet would groan their way along Kidderminster’s roads vying with carpet lorries for dominance.
Sugar beet was a major crop in the Midlands with its paddle-like leaves a familiar sight across farmland in contrast with the Oil Seed Rape that would take up dominance in Spring. It was a labour intensive crop during the early 20th century before mechanisation took the strain and the jobs. Despite modernisation, it remained a huge seasonal employer into the late 20th century at the sprawling factories. The sugar beet campaign was as much a part of the human seasonal landscape as fruit picking or the salad harvest of summer market gardens.
Rationalisation of the industry has seen most factories close now. At Kidderminster, the looming silos have been replaced by housing and new employment land. There is a sense of something missing from autumn now. The air quality is undoubtedly better, but there is for many a longing for the lost smell of autumn.